Monday, October 31, 2011

Connecting the Dots from the Electoral System to Income Inequality

It warms my heart to see how the Occupy Wall Street has taken hold. At long last, people have realized that the politics of economic growth are conceived to enrich the top 1% of the population at the expense of the bottom 99%.

However, one huge question remains: how do you fix the system?

The answer is that you have to change the electoral system that enables a small minority to effectively buy the politicians that will do their bidding. To do this, we have to get rid of selecting our elected representatives by the single member plurality method more popularly known as first-past-the-post.

If ever there was a voting system designed to favor rent seeking, the economic term for buying favors, it is first-past-the-post. I love the name because the horse race allusion captures what happens in the stands at a race track: being able to pick the winner backed by a significant wager pays off handsomely.

Let us remember that there is no greater return on investment in countries that use first-past-the-post than making a financial contribution to a political party coupled with a post election lobbying campaign. In the market, competition is fierce and investments to increase market share or profitability are fraught with uncertainty as competitors try to gain advantage in a zero-sum game. So, instead of trying to tip the entire playing field in one's direction, it is much easier to increase profits by getting those who set the rules of the game to intercede on one's behalf with a government contract, favorable legislation, or fiscal policy.

This is how the top 1% reap the lion's share of the nation's wealth. They hedge their bets, so it doesn't matter who wins the election. Both parties that offer government options to the electorate are funded by or by those who owe their social standing to the one per centers. Consequently, electoral campaigns come and go, focusing on peripheral issues, leaving in place the cumulative gains that the constant lobbying piles up for those in the upper most echelons of the society.

Indeed, accumulating favors is relatively easy to do when polling data tells you where the political parties stand relative to one another and all that is required is to pick which candidate will garner the most votes in each single electoral district. No messy formulas that award seats on the basis of the popular vote. Few surprises with regard to which candidate from which party will get elected. As a result, it is not difficult to identify who needs to be influenced in order to obtain preferential treatment and a cosy symbiotic relationship between politicians and their financiers comes about.

No wonder the anachronistic first-past-the-post resists attempts to replace it with other electoral systems that give better representation of the popular vote. To change the voting system, especially for one that gives proportional representation, increases the uncertainty of the results and consequently increases the risk of getting a return from one's campaign contribution.

In fact, multiparty coalitions are much more difficult to influence since there is no one who can wield authority in a unilateral fashion. Moreover, when everything has to be negotiated, there are no guarantees that the negotiated agreement will deliver the goods. In the process of negotiation, one's preferred outcome may fall off the table in the process of reaching an agreement.

To change the political economy so that there is a more equitable distribution of a nation's wealth, the demos, in other words the 99% who are effectively under-represented, must ensure that the transfer of political power from the electorate to elected officials that occurs as a result of election is done in a truly democratic fashion.

This will not occur as long as the first-past-the-post system is in place. To change the distribution of wealth, people must disable the political institution that enables the concentration of wealth in the first place.

Friday, October 21, 2011

It's Now Up To The Supreme Court of Canada

Seven years later, two refusals to entertain the evidence, we finally arrive at the end point of our journey: applying for leave to appeal our case concerning the constitutionality of the first-past-the-post voting system to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Essentially, the question we are asking of the courts is whether the current voting system respects the equality guarantees laid out in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

That the Quebec Superior Court and the Quebec Court of Appeal did not grant our motion to have the articles of Quebec's Electoral Act that stipulate the use of the first-past-the-post method declared null and void did not come as any surprise. After all, Quebec still hasn't signed the the constitution circa 1982, which establishes the Charter.

Our expert testimony that provides both mathematical and empirical evidence demonstrating the systemic discrimination inherent to the system is barely mentioned in either decision. In the first instance, the judge wrongfully dismissed our case saying that the question was essentially political, and in the second instance the appellate court concluded that although our case was indeed judicable, such egregious democratic anomalies like a political party that received nearly a million votes but was denied representation and political parties that received less votes than another but still went on to form a majority government were not sufficient grounds to demonstrate that first-past-the-post impinged upon citizens's rights to effective representation.

Comments like that blow my mind.

In trying to wrap my mind around such outrageous statements, I can only come up with three explanations. The first is that the Quebec Appeal Court decided to evacuate any democratic norms from the notion of effective representation: being able to cast a vote, become a candidate, and being represented by a deputy is all that is required for representation to be effective. That the result of the electoral process is undemocratic does not matter. The second is that the since the Court didn't understand the nature of the question that was being asked, it consequently opted for the default option and denied the motion. The third is that judges acted upon the notion is that they are there to ensure the continuity of the state as it presently exists and will therefore not grant a motion that would effectively cause a significant rupture with the past.

All three scenarios give us grounds for an appeal.

In the first instance, the application of the Charter is guided by the values belonging to a free and democratic society and not a society that is free from the constraints that democracy imposes. In the second, it appears that it is only at the Supreme Court of Canada that we find the human resources and intellectual rigor to properly render an informed judgment on what is a fundamental question concerning Canada's system of governance. Finally, in the third, it is the primary role of the Court to uphold the rights protected by the Charter not to uphold a government's right to continue an electoral practice that contravenes each citizen's right to participate in a democratic election.

So we now arrive at a moment of truth, a moment that speaks volumes about how this nation-state is constituted.

For the Supreme Court to hear our appeal demonstrates a commitment to the values of a free and democratic society.

For the Supreme Court to decide not to hear our appeal would be an instance of dismissive silence that demonstrates that Canada has not yet evolved from its colonial past as an English settler state.

Our appeal will be filed before November 14, 2011.